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7 Facts about Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 (“Eroica”)

At the time, it broke all standards: Beethoven’s third symphony, titled “Eroica” (the “Heroic”), was longer, larger and more monumental than the symphonies known to the Viennese public around 1800. Read here what makes the “Eroica” so special.

What you will read in this article:

1) The "Eroica" was Beethoven's favourite.

Maybe you know the “Eroica”, maybe not. But what you definitely know is another Beethoven symphony – the fifth.

You don’t recall the fifth symphony right now? Beethoven’s fifth symphony is the one with the famous beginning, this ta-ta-ta-TAAAA, you know…

(hr-Sinfonieorchester, Andrés Orozco-Estrada (conductor))

Well, this fifth symphony is undoubtedly the most famous Beethoven symphony today. In Beethoven’s time, too, the fifth Symphony was one of his best-known works.

That is why Christoph Kuffner, an Austrian poet, thought that Beethoven himself would consider his fifth Symphony to be his most important work. In the summer of 1817, Kuffner asked Beethoven: “Mr. Beethoven, which of your symphonies is the most important?”

Beethoven’s answer: “The Eroica.”

2) Beethoven composed a "noise killer".

But not only the fifth, also the third symphony has a famous beginning. The concert audience in the early 19th century was very different from today. Sitting still and being quiet were not necessarily common, especially at the beginning of a concert.

Well, that’s why it was good to hear clearly when the music began! This is exactly what Beethoven ensures with the beginning of the “Eroica”. It is a so-called “noise killer” – two beats of the entire orchestra that have nothing to do with the actual musical material yet:

(hr-Sinfonieorchester, Andrés Orozco-Estrada (conductor))

It is as if Beethoven were saying, “Attention! Here we go!” This beginning made quite an impression at the time, because….

3) ..."heaven and earth tremble!"

Ferdinand Ries, a student of Beethoven, was deeply impressed by the “Eroica”. Ries also took on the task of offering the symphony to the publisher Nikolaus Simrock for printing. On 22 October 1803, Ries wrote to Simrock:

"According to his [Beethoven's] own statement, it is the greatest work he has written to date. Beethoven played it [the third Symphony] for me the other day and I think heaven and earth must tremble at its performance."

Ferdinand Ries

By the way, the trembling is still going on today. If perhaps not heaven and earth, at least the musicians are still trembling today, because…

4) ...Beethoven's third Symphony is feared by horn players.

In the third movement of the “Eroica”, one instrumental group makes its grand entrance: the horns. They play so-called “horn fifths”, perhaps evoking associations with hunting in the audience of the time. It is not easy to play:

(hr-Sinfonieorchester, Andrés Orozco-Estrada (conductor))

5) Beethoven's "Eroica" was – perhaps – an application.

Around 1804, Beethoven toyed with the idea of moving from Vienna to Paris, for he was enthusiastic about Napoleon. It is therefore conceivable that Beethoven wrote the “Eroica” in order to show it personally to Napoleon in Paris. That Beethoven was anxious to win Napoleon’s favour is already proven by the fact that the third symphony was originally to be given the title “Buonaparte”.

But Beethoven’s enthusiasm for Napoleon did not last long. When Napoleon crowned himself emperor on 2 December 1804, Beethoven was sorely disappointed. For Beethoven, Napoleon’s self-coronation was a betrayal of the ideals of the revolution – “liberty, equality, fraternity”.

Thus it came about that Beethoven withdrew the dedication to Napoleon and remained in Vienna. His student Ferdinand Ries (whose acquaintance you have already made above) even claims to have observed Beethoven tearing up the title page of the symphony (on which the dedication to Napoleon was written).

Whether this actually happened is questionable, however. What is indisputable, however, and even extremely valuable for today’s music lovers, is the fact that Beethoven did not make any further musical changes to the symphony even after the dedication was withdrawn.

Thus, elements of the former “application to France” can still be found in the symphony today, for example…

6) ...the Funeral March.

Yes, Beethoven’s third symphony does indeed have a funeral march! It is the second movement:

(hr-Sinfonieorchester, Andrés Orozco-Estrada (conductor))

This element, unusual in symphonies of the time, is a remnant of Beethoven’s enthusiasm for France: from 1789 onwards, the playing of funeral marches was part of funeral tributes in France.

7) Beethoven's third Symphony was first performed in private.

Mozart knew before Beethoven that as an artist you sometimes simply have to know the right people. Beethoven’s patrons included many influential people, for instance Prince Joseph Lobkowitz.

The “Eroica” was premiered in Lobkowitz’s Viennese palace (still the “Palais Lobkowitz” today) on 9 June 1804 in a private setting. The first public performance did not take place until almost a year later under Beethoven’s direction at the Theater an der Wien.

Jonathan Stark – Conductor
Jonathan Stark – Conductor

Hello! I'm Jonathan Stark. As a conductor, it is important to me that visits to concerts and operas leave a lasting impression on the audience. Background knowledge helps to achieve this. That's why I blog here about key works of classical music, about composers, about opera and much more that happens in the exciting world of music.

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